"The True Genius of Her Writing"

Putting together some introductory notes for next week’s Middlemarch lectures, I was reminded (by Rosemary Ashton’s excellent biography) that Marian Evans’s 1855 essay “Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming” was the piece that convinced her ‘husband,’ George Henry Lewes, “of the true genius of her writing.” Ashton suggests the essay “has one of the most arresting openings in all periodical literature–though she acknowledges it lacks the devastating brevity of Francis Jeffrey’s “This will never do” (about Wordsworth’s The Excursion). What it lacks in “succinctness” it makes up in venom:

Given, a man with moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society? Where is that Goshen of mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputation for sanctity.

The essay’s conclusion does little, if anything, to soften the sting of her analysis, though it does return us to something more like the meliorative tone we expect from the novelist who would later anatomize the troubled conscience of the evangelical Mr. Bulstrode so much more compassionately, if no less stringently:

Before taking leave of Dr. Cumming, let us express a hope that we have in no case exaggerated the unfavourable character of the inferences to be drawn from his pages. His creed often obliges him to hope the worst of men, and to exert himself in proving that the worst is true; but thus far we are happier than he. We have no theory which requires us to attribute unworthy motives to Dr. Cumming, no opinions, religious or irreligious, which can make it a gratification to us to detect him in delinquencies. On the contrary, the better we are able to think of him as a man, while we are obliged to disapprove of him as a theologian, the stronger will be the evidence for our conviction, that the tendency towards good in human nature has a force which no creed can utterly counteract, and which ensures the ultimate triumph of that tendency over all dogmatic perversions.

Much as I enjoy the pungency of her rhetoric, I like even better the idea of a romance nourished on such intellectual substance. I’m not the only one (though perhaps I am rare in appreciating it without irony?)–from Cynthia Ozick’s “Puttermesser Paired,” we get this picture of modern lovers inspired by “the two Georges”:

They read until they were dried up. They read until their eyes skittered and swelled. The strangeness in it did not elude them: where George Eliot and George Lewes in their nighttime coziness had taken up Scott, Trollope, Balzac, Turgenev, Daudet, Sainte-Beuve, Madame d’Agoult (Lewes recorded all this in his diary), she and Rupert read only the two Georges. Puttermesser discussed what this might mean. It wasn’t for “inspiration,” she pointed out–she certainly wasn’t mixing herself up with a famous dead Victorian. She was conscious of her Lilliputian measur: a worn-out city lawyer, stunted as to real experience, a woman lately secluded, eaten up with loneliness, melancholia ground into the striations of her face. The object was not inspiration but something sterner. The object was just what it had been for the two Georges: study. What Puttermesser and Rupert were studying was a pair of heroic boon companions. Boon companions! It was fellowship they were studying; it was nearness.

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